Drag is a performance art that uses costumes, makeup, and other tools to present exaggerated forms of gender expression to critique gender inequalities and imagine a transformational future where people are truly free in how they express themselves.
Though drag began in the LGBTQ+ community, it has increasingly become part of the wider cultural landscape through shows like RuPaul’s Drag Race. Throughout its history, it was often driven underground due to anti-LGBTQ+ persecution. But as society became more accepting of LGBTQ+ identities, drag’s visibility and cultural influence grew enormously.
In recent years, drag performances, including family-friendly ‘drag story hour’ events at bookstores and libraries, have faced armed protests, threats, and violent actions from right-wing hate groups. Several states have passed, or attempted to pass, legislation restricting where, when, how, and to whom drag can be performed. These attacks are part of HRC’s National State of Emergency for LGBTQ+ Americans.
Drag is important because it promotes visibility of LGBTQ+ people to wider audiences, which increases societal acceptance. That’s why those with anti-LGBTQ+ attitudes object to the very existence of gender non-conformity in public no matter how innocuous and age appropriate. By spreading falsehoods, their attacks on drag artists serve to stigmatize all LGBTQ+ people.
Rooted in these legislative and violent attacks is a fundamental –if not intentionally willful –misunderstanding of what drag is. This guide, Understanding Drag, aims to correct these misunderstandings by introducing readers to the fundamentals of drag, in all its forms.
What is Drag? A Celebration of Non-Conformity
Drag uses clothes and other aspects of performance to create heightened versions of masculinity, femininity and other forms of gender expression. It is rooted in acceptance and resilience and is an artform that represents freedom of expression and resistance to unjust forces. Drag is a means to understand those whose experiences are different from our own, and a source of profound joy for millions of Americans of all ages, races, genders and sexualities.
For some performers, drag may be an integral part of their Coming Out journey, providing a safe and affirming space to explore their gender identity and expression before coming out as transgender or non-binary in daily life.
For others, drag can simply offer a way to play and explore with masculinity, femininity, and gender presentations outside a strict binary, regardless of how they identify offstage.
For audiences, drag asks viewers to examine and question gendered stereotypes, unmasking larger truths about how our society is constructed. In turn, this allows for a deeper understanding of oneself and greater empathy for those different.
DRAG 101: Terms You Should Know
Drag has many terms related to its performance and culture. When discussing drag, these are some of the most common phrases you might hear:
Drag King – A performer who dresses in masculine drag (e.g. drag to make them appear masculine).
Drag Queen - A performer who dresses in feminine drag (e.g. drag to make them appear feminine).
Drag Pageant – A competition where drag artists are judged on their costumes and performances.
Ballroom – In the 1960s, Black and Latine drag artists created their own pageants called “balls” since traditional drag pageants featured predominantly white judges. Ballroom culture became particularly prominent in the 1980s across several major American cities, though it has been popularized in documentaries such as Paris is Burning, and, most recently in the fictional tv show Pose. It is in ballroom that we see the origins of the dance style vogue, Drag Houses serving as chosen families, and the establishment of many of the categories and language still used in drag competitions today.
Houses – In ballroom culture, Houses serve as alternative families for performers who are often estranged from their birth families. They are led by experienced members of the ballroom scene called “Mothers” or “Fathers” who guide and support “children” of the House.
Vogue – A style of dance that emerged from the Harlem Ballroom scene in the 1980s. I gained mainstream exposure with the Madonna song “Vogue” in 1990 and was featured in the critically acclaimed ballroom documentary Paris is Burning.
Drag Styles and Settings
Drag is an art form that includes many different styles and is performed in many different settings. Its goal is to entertain and to educate, to use art to spread joy and positive social change. And as with movies or books, there are different types of performances suited to different age ranges. Drag is an important part of American and global culture, and a great example of freedom of expression.